ReVision

Relativism

There are no absolute truths. Or are there?

Worldly Winds (5)

One of them, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”
Titus 1.12

Truth obscured
It’s easy to read right past Paul’s quote from the Cretan philosopher Epimenides (7th or 6th century BC). Though his writings were quite old, it seems he had been enjoying something of a renaissance among the thinking people of Crete in the days when Paul and Titus were evangelizing and starting churches there.

It appears that some people on Crete were popular because they sounded profound. They spoke with eloquence, confidence, and ancient authority. They may have been glib and clever, but the effect of their teaching was to make knowing truth extremely difficult.

Let’s analyze this one quote from Epimenides that Paul cited as an example of those Cretan intellectuals who were sowing discord into the body of Christ, and upsetting entire house churches by their teaching (vv. 10, 11). Their way of obscuring truth and thus of blunting the power of the Gospel was to make the issue of truth difficult if not impossible to nail down.

They said, quoting Epimenides, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” That was probably meant in jest, and it would have been received with a wink and a laugh by many Cretans who heard it. But look more closely. Epimenides – himself a Cretan – said that “Cretans are always liars.” That must mean that he, too, was lying when he wrote this. So if he, like all other Cretans, was lying when he said that all Cretans are always liars, that must mean that he wasn’t telling the truth about Cretans. Therefore, since he was lying about them all being liars, Cretans must instead be truth-tellers; thus, his statement was not a lie, but was true; and therefore, indeed, all Cretans are liars. Including Epimenides?

You can see why this would confuse people about the matter of truth. The point was to discourage folks from swallowing large and universal truth claims – like, say, the Gospel. People should think for themselves and come to their own conclusions about what’s true and what they should believe.

This effort to blunt the truth claims of the Gospel continues today under the formal name of relativism.

Relativism defined
In 2014 President Obama awarded the National Humanities Medal to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, an American philosopher. Dr. Goldstein believes in philosophy, and she insists that philosophy makes progress in knowing just as science does. She would appear, therefore, to be offering a view in opposition to scientism, which insists that science is the only true way of knowing, and thus the only intellectual discipline that really matters.

In an interview with Edge (March 16, 2016), Dr. Newberger insisted that everyone’s view of life matters, and that their views matter equally. She said, “We can’t pursue our lives without thinking our lives matter...Simply to take actions on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions – that your own life matters to some extent.” So far, so good. We agree, of course, that all lives matter and everyone should be considered equally valuable because we are all made in the image of God.

But Dr. Goldstein rejects any religious ideas about how human lives matter, insisting instead “that there is an equitable distribution of mattering among humans. To the extent that any of us matters – and just try living your life without presuming that you do – we all equally matter.” What does this mean? Every person’s “own life deserves the assiduous attention and dedicated activity that every creature unthinkingly gives it.” It’s wrong to try to figure out why we matter, Dr. Goldstein explained; we must simply accept that we do and get on with the business of mattering to ourselves. People have to matter on their own terms, not those of others. We have to refrain from thinking that our ideas about what matters are anything like universal ideals.

And that is the key to relativism: no universal ideas. Every person matters, so every person’s view of the world, of life, and of themselves matters and ought to be encouraged: “we all matter equally.”

But mattering is one thing; mattering truthfully is another. For the relativist, it is impossible to say that anything is universally true in all times and places. Everything that we might consider truthful is relative to our time, place, circumstances, interests, and needs. No universals. Truth for me, as it were.

So like those who puzzled over Epimenides in Paul’s day, people today are blown about by winds of doctrine encouraging them to believe that whatever they like or desire or prefer or find interesting or helpful is truth for them. Truth for me is the watchword of relativism, which encourages a rationalist approach to life, but based on one’s own sense of what finally matters.

Problems with relativism
The biggest problem with relativism is that the statement, “there are no universal truths” is itself a universal truth. So if there are no universal truths, then even that statement is not true, and there must indeed be universal truths. Relativism is hoist on its own petard.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not an influential way of thinking. Much damage has been done among well-meaning Christians by small group leaders who encourage us to discover what the Bible means “for me” instead of what the Bible means. The Bible means what God intends it to mean; how we apply that meaning will certainly be individually determined. We must not confuse the two.

We sometimes give the impression that when it comes to certain aspects of the life of faith, you say potato while I say potahto is just the way things are. We all just need to believe what we think God is telling us, and not think that the Biblc has only one meaning in any given text.

This view of the Bible then gets applied to a wide range of matters relative to the life of faith: We all should be able to worship as we want. We should be able to pick and choose which Scriptures to obey and which to ignore. We should be tolerant of others, even when they’re in sin (which makes it especially easy to tolerate ourselves when we’re in sin). And so on.

The winds of relativism appeal to the law of sin and our natural self-interest, making us believe that our views of the Bible, of worship, of ethics, of spiritual life, and much more matter as much as anyone else’s. And while it’s true that every believer matters, because we are all God’s children, it is not true that every believer’s view of truth matters. In the Church, we do not all matter equally when it comes to truth. God’s Word matters supremely; His Spirit matters above all; and following the teaching of Jesus and the apostles is our guide to mattering as God intends. We matter rightly not when we matter authentically, but when we matter according to God’s Word, and for His Kingdom and glory.

And that’s no lie.

For reflection
1. Why can’t everyone’s view of the Bible matter equally in the church?

2. How does relativism try to influence us when we’re faced with some ethical decision?

3. How would you counsel a new believer to recognize the ill wind of relativism and prepare himself to resist it?

Next steps – Preparation: Today, pay attention to any worldly winds of relativism that blow across your journey. Note them, and thank God for the truth of His unchanging and unfailing Word.

T. M. Moore

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
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